Disney Celebrates 100 Years of Storytelling: A Look Into the Nostalgia and Evolution 

Magic Kingdom at DisneyWorld in Florida. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The Walt Disney Company celebrated its 100th birthday on Oct. 16, 2023. This marks 100 years since its establishment in 1923, when a struggling animator from Missouri known as Walt Disney moved to Hollywood and, with his brother, created a small cartoon studio known as Disney Brothers; later becoming the Disney we know today. 

Disney is arguably the biggest family entertainment company and has been a purveyor of storytelling with memorable characters. For many, movie classics such as “The Lion King,” “Toy Story” or “Star Wars” have framed some of their cherished childhood memories that can induce feelings of nostalgia when watched again in adulthood.

 It’s come a long way since its Steamboat Willie days, which was the first animation to be synchronized with sound. Over the company’s history, they have had to shift with the evolving market to remain relevant in the changing media landscape of our times. So what can we learn from the 100-year-old company and what can be better? James Wicks, media and film studies professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, said Disney’s global reach and impact is undeniable but with great power comes great responsibility. 

“It’s Disney’s world, we’re just living in it. Disney has consistently stayed at the forefront of technological advancements while tapping into stories that capture broad attention,” said Wicks.

Over the years, Disney has stayed ahead of the curve by acquiring innovative companies like Pixar. Disney would eventually buy the CGI company for seven billion dollars in 2006 and they repeated this in 2012 when they bought the Lucasfilm Star Wars franchise for $4.05 billion. Other popular media companies it is home to include ESPN, ABC, Lifetime, History, A&E and FX are all owned by Disney.

Wicks also said how he tried only playing Japanese anime and other types of cartoons at home when his kids were little due to the narratives they provided, which featured strong young female leads. Instead of small and feeble princesses needing to be rescued as has often been the case with Disney narratives, they were the ones doing the rescuing. 

Nonetheless, he still encourages students interested in storytelling to study Disney’s narrative techniques as their methods have proven successful for a reason.  

“I hope that students will understand Disney stories inside and out in order to discover the ways Disney’s stories are so successful within the value system of staggering profitability,” said Wicks. “At the same time, there are other value systems to keep in mind – value systems I find much more valuable than money: community, equality, compassion, sharing. Do Disney films consistently excel on these levels? Can we be entertained without always resorting to escapism?” 

In today’s socio-political climate, we are watching the landscape of entertainment, media and film shift towards a more inclusive, diverse, and socially conscious direction, where storytelling and representation in entertainment are increasingly reflective of the diverse voices and perspectives of our global society.

“Today, films in the U.S. like ‘Barbie’ are capturing audience attention while working counter to the traditional Disney tropes, and they are finding incredible traction,” said Wicks. “Historically, there are multiple global film traditions that offer numerous other exciting possibilities outside of the Disney model.” 

This leads one to consider what other movies within the Disney world students can glean storytelling techniques from.

“I am a total fan of the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. I believe some of the more recent storylines, like ‘The Eternals,’ ‘Shang-Chi’ and ‘Thor 4’ in the MCU and ‘Andor’ and ‘Ahsoka’ in the StarWars universe, are reimagining the genres, asking good questions, and offering welcome perspectives,” said Wicks.

Wicks said the company has influenced the way we tell stories and its strategic appeal to audiences of all ages is directly related to their success. 

“Disney’s appeal to youth and imagination, regardless of the age of the viewer, has been delivered at an incredible rate of consistency. However, such a huge influence comes a huge responsibility which I hope Disney can shoulder going forward,” said Wicks.

From a more critical lens, the entertainment company has been criticized for perpetuating toxic narratives about culture and colonialism. 

“Unfortunately, I believe the stories historically have been either complicit with or ignorant of the impacts of U.S. pop culture during the last century — one Taiwanese director named Wu Nien-Jen, whom I admire greatly, once stated that U.S. pop culture in the 1950s and 60s had a greater colonizing impact psychologically than actual Japanese colonialism from 1895 to 1945 in Taiwan,” said Wicks.

It’s not all magic at Disney. Over the years, Disney hasn’t had a major hit that stands out or dominated box offices. An article published by NPR on Aug. 9, 2023 noted that The Walt Disney Company is navigating the “ebbs and flows of consumer behavior, cord-cutting and a sluggish ad market, among other issues.”

According to NPR, Disney’s quarterly earnings report identified three areas that will drive future growth: movies, parks/cruises and streaming/direct-to-consumer. 

With the tides of change continuing to flow, in November 2022, previous Disney CEO Bob Iger came out of retirement to help put the House of Mouse back together after some reported missteps by former CEO Bob Chapek with the pandemic of 2020 also being a contributing factor. Iger was supposed to stay for two years. But Disney’s board recently voted unanimously to extend his contract through Dec. 31, 2026.

Breeann Kirby, professor of writing and director of environmental studies, said she also sees darker themes inherent in Disney stories even if that wasn’t the intended theme. 

“Take Dumbo, for instance, the actual message in Dumbo is that if you are weird and ‘ugly’ then people will ostracize you and take away your defenders (the mother), but when you become rich and famous, you can have it all back,” said Kirby via email interview. “Or with the movie ‘Up,’ the secret theme in that one is that you can deny your wife/spouse the one thing she wants (a vacation) but if you go do it when she dies then it’s okay to be selfish.”

Her perspective is that students can benefit from studying how Disney tells stories as well as their archetypal characters while also noting that they have derived a lot of its storylines from classic literature texts. 

“One of the big themes I see in many Disney movies is a longing for a more fulfilling life than realizing how much home and family/community matters. We see this with ‘Moana,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘The Little Mermaid,’” said Kirby.

Kirby notes that Disney’s longevity could be since they are good at finding stories with cultural significance. 

“Their tropes/ideas that have cultural traction. I also really love that they send their Imagineers to locations and do lots of research to get the story just right,” said Kirby.

According to Kirby, students who are interested in Disney-affiliated internship/work opportunities should consider looking into courses like WRI3065 (Professional Writing) where students spend half the semester figuring out what they want to do career-wise and the second half creating a portfolio of pieces for applying to their dream jobs. 

“One of my students did theme his whole portfolio on working for Disney. He then put himself out there with the various opportunities they had to work with the company,” said Kirby. “You won’t start out as an Imagineer, you have to be willing to work in the lower jobs and gain experience and company loyalty then move up.”

According to Wicks, media and film studies students should also take advantage of networking opportunities on campus as well as their group of mentors and peers around them who share similar goals.

“I believe my goal as an instructor is to enable students to achieve their highest potential,” said Wicks. “If students want to work for Disney, I will support them 100% because I believe Christian students with a broad liberal arts education are exactly what Disney needs. Disney has the infrastructure and reach to continue changing the world.” 

Students who are Disney fans shared how the entertainment company has influenced their lives and creative thinking. 

“Fundamentally, I feel like the spirit of Disney has definitely influenced my imagination and desire to dream big in all aspects of my life,” said Kaina Montes, a fourth-year nutrition major. “Growing up with Disney movies has and will forever always hold a special place in my heart.”

Montes, who visited Disney World recently, noted that Disney advertised its 100-year celebration on the company’s Starbucks and popcorn cups. 

“It’s as if a century’s worth of magic could be felt in just a day,” said Montes.

In honor of its 100th-year celebration, Disney released a 12-minute short which features all of its 543 characters coming to life at the Disney Animation Studio after hours. The short titled “Once Upon a Studio” can be streamed on the Disney Plus app and aims to elicit laughs, emotion and nostalgia from its audience. 

Disney and its storytellers — animators, actors, writers, songwriters, directors and producers — have been a powerhouse for storytelling in the media and film entertainment industry but much has changed since its start in animated storytelling in the late 1920’s. We are living in a time where social norms are changing and a new landscape for storytelling is unfolding. One that is more raw, culturally sensitive and questioning gender stereotypes along with innovative technological advancement. 

One of the latest projects for Disney includes “Wish,” which is set to premiere Nov. 14, 2023.